Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Chennai's Education system - Why has it gone down the drain?

Had ranted about how the education system in Chennai had become very poor over the past decade and a half. Had made a promise to myself to outline why this has indeed become the case. So, here goes.

The usual suspects are all there - Lesser pressure from parents, more distractions, mobile phone, gadget-fetish, etc etc. But two things stand out.

First is the fact that the City's engineering colleges have completely mastered the art of ensuring 90% of their students get placed in the IT Companies. And the lines have blurred between "good" job and "bad" job. Most jobs pay in the same range. If we can treat the odd offer from Amazon or Google as an outlier, everyone is pretty much in the same boat. Great breakthrough for engineering colleges, good for the real estate market; but extremely bad for the incentive system for parents and students. There appears to be no credible answer to the question - Why should I b*st my ass preparing for JEE?

The best response I can think for this is a wonderful quote from Mr Warren Buffett - You only find out who is swimming naked when the tide goes out.

Cometh the tough times, we will realize that most of our engineering graduates know pish tosh about anything. Now would be a good time to give a silent thanks to the Infies and Wipros of the world for bailing the city out at just the right time.

The second and more distressing factor driving this is the Tamilnadu stateboard education system. Most of our college students know very little because we have taught them only that much. Simply put, the stateboard education system teaches close to nothing to students.

Tamilnadu students are classic examples of the frog in the well syndrome. There are apparently 600 guys in the state who get 200 each in Maths, Physics and Chemistry in their standard XII exam. The amount of cocaine needed to believe that this is a good statistic runs in kilograms. But somehow, this is touted as a good showing every year. I really want some of what the government officials are having.

Importantly, this idea has been sold to the people so magnificently that there is a sense of pride in choosing our own path, a feeling that justice has been done, etc. "Entrance exams rig the game in favour of city people and rich people, this marks-only scheme is a more level playing field" - this is what most people in the city are made to believe.

Tamilnadu has been drunk on watered-down material, inflated grades, and great jobs for close to 15 years now. When the state will pay the price, I do not know. That there is a price to be paid, I am sure of.

Some early signs are there. Large number of small companies based out of Chennai go to Bangalore to recruit (some go to Madurai, Truchy as well. In order to get good attitude. Chennai cannot offer that either).

Last year, IIM Kozhikode, in a fantastic gesture told Tamilnadu students that they could take their stateboard marksheets and shove it somewhere. In an overall scoring system where class X and XII marks play a role in securing admissions. Marks obtained in Tamilnadu stateboard exams have been given 50% weightage. In other words, if you scored 90% in CBSE board exams, you would 18 out of 20 for that section. If you scored 100% in Tamilnadu stateboard exams you would get 10 out of 20 in that section. Awesome. This is the clearest indicator of what the rest of the country thinks of our beloved board. I dont think any state government officials would even know about this. If they did, we would have heard of court case against it. It has a late 80s soviet Union spiel about it. (We live in our cocoon, we are the best. Repeat after me)

The qualification one holds is a signal. In a recruitment market with asymmetric information, the degree you hold tells the potential recruiter whether you are good, bad or rotten. The reputation of the college and the difficulty level of the course you have done determine what you are signaling to your recruiter.

The signals sent could be very simple

1. A person with a high score is likely to be good (whatever way good is defined us. let us keep this simple).
2. A person with a low score is unlikely to be good

The signal Tamilnadu education board has created is awesome. After years of effort they have developed this one-way signal, probably unique in the world

If a student scores high marks in Tamilnadu board, this means nothing.
If a student scores low marks in Tamilnadu board, this means he must be phenomenally dumb or should be so lazy that he just does not care. Or both.

So, with the TN board signal, you can either conclude that you know nothing about the candidate or that he is an idiot.

Now, we are heading towards Samcheer kalvi. God save the state.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The class and caste system in the IITs

The IITs have their own class and caste system. The class system is one of grades, the point that has been well-illustrated by the book "Five-point someone". Everyone in campus is a something-pointer, and this classification gets established right at the end of semester II and chases one all the way to semester VIII (and beyond, sadly).

There are juntas who slide down from a 9-pointer to an 8-something, there are those who that crash and burn all the way to the dreaded 6-somethings. Less frequently, we would hear about the upwardly mobile as well; the rare "fighters" who travel in the opposite direction. This group undergoes the same acceptance problems as any aspiring class but gains recognition once 2 semesters go by.

In every branch there are 9-pointers to 6-pointers and beyond. In many ways, local social standing and preconceptions are built pretty much around this number. One of the main planks of Alpha-male-dom in campus is the number attached after (or before) your name. The Chetan Bagat novel actually captures this very well.

The caste system in IITs is one based on branch or department. Depending on the craze and frenzy of the times, the departments are placed in some order. Computer Science is usually on top, followed by electrical, mech, chem and then the rest(see how patronizing that was. Caste usually operates like that).

People earn(!) branch changes at the end of semester II if they are in the top x% of the overall batch or some such norm; but barring this naturalization, there is no way of changing your caste (branch). People can choose to move to "lower" branches without any CGPA cut-off at the end of semester II, although political correctness usually demands that this not be called a "branch slide".

Even the most broad-minded and politically correct juntas usually accept the caste/class norms and this is what keeps these norms from disappearing. For any class/caste system to really gain acceptance, the so-called "lower" class/caste should subconsciously accept the hierarchy. The group dynamics in IITs ensure that this happens smoothly.

So, how does one compare an elec 7-pointer with a 9-pointer from a "lower" branch? Thats a tricky one. Both will argue that they are superior to the other. But in many cases, if you are sufficiently lower in caste, the class ceases to count. To give an example, a mech 9-pointer can have a better standing than an elec 7-pointer, but there is a good chance that the meta 9-pointer cannot compete.

I had this memorable conversation with my classmate who was (is) an electrical engineer. And who (like yours truly) was designated low class by semester III (we were both 7 pointers). There was this 4th year student from our hostel who was in the top few in his branch and felt he had done enough academically to impart gyaan to students two years his junior. The only problem was that he was a topper in metallurgical engineering. And meta is a low-caste branch, if you know what I mean.

My friend patiently listened to said pompous git for about 3 minutes, waited for the guy to leave and then said "Meta-****** have started speaking to me about academics. ****** . ***^&%^*.. I would effing be an elec 5-pointer than be the branch record holder in that ***'s branch. Somebody should tell that ***** that he can shove his advice up his ********. If he can clear the electronics paper in my effing branch without getting his *** whipped, I will listen to the **** for more than effing 3 minutes. *****.

Caste overrides class here.

We have parallels of the caste/class demarcation in many different fields. Academic background/Job is one such. Essentially, one aspect that cannot be easily changed along with one that can be improved upon together combining to count for social standing is a caste/class system

Grade/branch in IITs
Academic background/ Job performance
Beauty quotient of wife/ wealth
Inherited wealth/ income generated

This is probably the reason why the caste system is more odious than the class one. Because you can still alter your class - through smarts, luck or perseverance. But if you are a meta dude, there is no way in hell you can give gyaan to Computer Science graduates and hope to be listened to. And that somehow grates more.

P.S: On a side note, that meta dude was a muppet. Pompous non-achiever if ever there was one. :)

Monday, October 17, 2011

Why I am not a fan of Chartered Accountants

Apparently, the answer to the above question is not obvious. Makes me feel that we live in a world filled with chartered accountants. Top 6 reasons below

1. Rule of 44A: This is the rule that allows CA's to arbitrarily club 2 numbers and an alphabet and hide behind that - no questions asked.

2. Propensity to act like the military: CA's either tell you that something cannot be done, or that they will take care of the issue (they often flipflop between the two, which can be mildly irritating). Never, will they tell you how something is taken care of or why something needs taking care of. The left hand shall never know what the right hand does.

3. Popular belief that CA's are good at maths: CAs know how to add/manipulate numbers that can be put on a spreadsheet. They generally know diddly-squat about maths. Most CAs wont know that the probability of them understanding anything has to be lesser than or equal to one, no matter how great they are. It is an unfortunate reality of our country that someone who can add/subtract using excel sheets is considered "strong in numbers".

4. Legal system that gives them a monopoly: Put simply, the signature of a CA carries value. So, throw a simple demand-supply equation in and you know what I am getting at.

5. An education system that de-selects intelligence: I find it very hard to believe that someone with a high level of intelligence will tolerate the slow decay of brain cells that is CA preparation. So, CAs strike that exact beautiful balance. One needs to show resilience, diligence and some degree of smarts to get there. But you are essentially dealing with a peer group that is not frightfully smart because of the dumbing-down required to get there. An awesome cocktail to facilitate the indoctrination that follows. A very narrow IQ band of 90-95 or thereabouts would fit the bill, I think.

6. An extremely inflated sense of self-worth: Now, this is what gets me the most. So, there goes the rant-alert. The game is rigged to select irritants with average IQ and give them monopoly powers. At best, this is a positive result for society because it prevents these characters from interrupting other productive activities. If all of us see it this way, we could all treat CA-dom as a necessary evil and get on with life. However, this is where indoctrination plays spoil-sport. CAs are bred to believe that they are phenomenal because a) it is so difficult to become one and b) they are the number-keepers of all of society.

I once attended this party where there were 4 couples. All 4 couples had young kids and the first two couples I interacted with the mothers had taken a break from work to handle the kid(s). When I ran into couple no 3, I asked the wife if she was working, very innocently (with not even a tinge of chauvinism, I must add). She was more than mildly irritated and replied "I am a CA" (with a nasal twang that so called high-brow South Indians are wont to use). Somehow this was meant to convey to me that she not working would be such a loss to society that it could not even be contemplated. This made me recall this timeless scene from one of my favourite movies - with the immortal line, "Athulla enna peruma, get out"

Next time some CA has that "I am a CA, please give me the respect it deserves" look, think about the line - "Athulla enna peruma, get out" (For good measure imagine Thengai Srinivasan and Rajnikant as well). I have noticed that even though it does little to change CA's perception of oneself even a smidgeon, it makes your conversation with said CA slightly less miserable. And if you are unfortunate enough to be caught in a conversation with a CA, this is the best you can hope for.

A sense of humour that can compete with that of a hockey stick, an ability to spout global inanities at the first request for detail and vice versa, propensity to underestimate other professions, etc can be added to the list of CA characteristics that can be less endearing. But no point flogging a dead horse and all that :)

I need to add a disclaimer here, because the CAs have a chip on the shoulder and are liable to list down a series of successful CAs in a bid to reclaim the holy-land that is CA-dom. Not all CAs are dumb. There is bound to be a sizeable minority of CAs who are reasonably intelligent and tolerable. This is called law of averages. The likelihood of finding a CA who is smart and tolerable is about as high as finding someone else with any other qualification, be it B.Com or BE or BA. The other graduates accept this as reality, CAs will perceive this as an insult. And that is the most painful factor about them.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Greece crisis in Laymanomics

Had a discussion for long-ish stretch of time at home last evening on Greece and why this crisis is upon Europe (and by, extension the rest of the world). Just thought I would put it on the blog as well.

It all began with the start of the Euro project. When the single currency was launched, all countries could borrow in Euro terms, though the rate each country borrows at depends on that country's financial state. However, when the Euro was launched, the rates of almost all countries were within a small band. This really helped Greece, Portugal etc as they could now borrow at very low rates. This benefit was added on as one of the Euro project's success stories.

For a parallel, think of a group such as Tata. TCS can borrow whatever money it needs at less than 6% interest rate (TCS has cash reserves running into 100's of millions), whereas if Tatas started a new venture called Tata oil financing, they would be able to borrow only at rates of 10% or so. If the banks got a 'Tata' guarantee, then the loans to TCS and Tata Oil financing would be at closer levels. The Euro project gave all countries a Euro guarantee (Only it did not, we will see that)

Now, we all know what debt at low interest rates can do to people, imagine what it can do to countries. For second house and big car, read increased pensions and pet going-nowhere projects. Government spending increased and fiscal health deteriorated. Come 2008-crisis and everything froze for a little while. Anything freezes, the riskier assets are the first to clog up.

For our India parallel, imagine a bank run on ICICI. ICICI will do whatever to calm the markets, but one of the first things it will do internally is to say that stop lending to companies like Tata Oil.

Now, no country can run without debt-financing and even temporary freeze-ups can hurt perfectly well-run businesses and countries. So, the system did whatever it could to unclog stuff. Big blanket guarantees were promised. Huge recapitalization was done

In India RBI comes out and says depositors are protected, no matter what.

But suspicion that some countries are not that well-managed never went away and everyone started looking closer and closer at risk premia. Spreads started expanding. No longer would German debt and Greece debt be at the same cost. It was a stupid idea anyway and now with things looking sticky, markets had to revisit this.

ICICI and co told Tata group that group guarantees are well and fine, but will TCS shareholders cough up $500m if Tata Oil collapsed? Because they wont, we want to get paid 10% interest rates anyway. For good measure, we want to add a penalty clause that will increase the interest rates to 12% in case of missed/delayed payments.

When interest rates go up and EMI creeps up, families struggle to pay mortgages. Countries are no different. As it is the recession had hurt revenues, now with interest costs increasing finances started looking ugly.

Tata Oil had one rig failure and with interest rate reaching 12% things became tricky to handle. Interest payments went high and margins got squeezed

Greece got a soft loan from rest of Europe/ECB (read Germany). This was at a low interest rate, made plainly to help tide things along. This was for a short-term only, with the idea that once things recovered, Greece would be able to hold its own. In return, the Euro countries forced down a plan to improve Greece's fiscal state. Severe austerity measures were imposed. An already contracting economy's troubles were exacerbated.

ICICI realized that deliberately squeezing Tata Oil was going to help nobody, struck a deal with Tata Group, relaxed interest rate to 7% for 2 years, with an added guarantee from Tata Group (TCS shareholders were not spoken to even now). ICICI clamped down on top management pay, had an ICICI guy installed on the board of Tata Oil and slashed marketing budget. A company struggling for revenues had its marketing budget slashed - one can imagine what happens

Greece's recovery plan was based on three assumptions - 1) the austerity measures would be sufficient (some doubted this) 2) the austerity measures would be implemented well and accepted well (many doubted this) and 3) global economy would recover well (nobody really believed this)

ICICI got a promise from Tata group and assumed that Tata Oil would retain its best employees. Good employees have a knack of running away from a sinking ship and sharp clients are good enough to sense fleeing employees.

We are where we are. None of the three assumptions have held good. The world now wants blanket guarantees from Germany, a huge bazooka to bail out Greece and Greece to become good citizens and reform. Good luck with that. If this does not turn out well, the markets will go after Portugal and Ireland, we are told. If Germany wont bail out Greece, why should they bother with Portugal or Ireland.

Taking our parallel further, if TCS wont bailout Tata Oil, why should the bankers lend to Tata Real estate on group guarantee? Why indeed?

The most critical parallel here is the fact that as much as TCS is part of the Tata group, TCS is also listed. And the TCS shareholders have to have a say in any further guarantee-ing. Being part of the group was all well and good when this started. But 90% of TCS revenues come from outside, and everyone can sense that the group tag is a liability. Importantly, TCS shareholders can ask Tata group to take a hike.

Replace Tata group with Euro, TCS with German citizens and Tata Oil with Greece and our parallel becomes complete.

I am firmly with TCS shareholders on this. The German citizens should ask Greece to take a hike. This bail-out-or-we-will-all-be-in-bigger-trouble trick worked for the banks in 2008, Germany should not fall for it again.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ich bin ein Berliner

John F Kennedy made this phrase famous nearly 50 years ago in his dramatic speech in West Germany. I have a sneaky suspicion that those of us not holding the belief that the profligate are entitled to help from the afflient will be echoing similar sentiments in the weeks to come.

If, over the next few weeks, the Germans indeed refuse to be blackmailed into bailing out the Greeks, I think at least few people around the world should show their support for the Germans. For sure, the self-righteous, good Samaritans will pile on the Germans and insist that it is the Germans' duty to help out a neighbour; while economists will point out that Germany will be shooting itself in the foot if the Euro project collapses.

The economists have hinted that Germany has gained the most from the single currency and must therefore save the Euro. Even German ministers have said this .

Germany has been accused of dithering (many times over) and have been accused of increasing debt burden of other countries. In a round-about fashion, the Economist has even accused the Germans of being part of the problem-creators -

"None of this is to say that Germany is the main cause of the euro’s crisis. As much or more blame lies with those that spent irresponsibly, failed to reform in good times and were blind to property bubbles."

Huh. How does that work?

But all this chatter overlooks some basic facts. Germany has contributed the most Euros for the Euro project. It is the biggest donor country, it is the country that has chipped in the most for bail-outs. The Germans work harder, work longer hours, retire later than some of the Euro citizens they have been bailing out. And it is considered deplorable if Merkel considers what ordinary Germans think about the bailout. Pish tosh. If I were German I would be participating in all protest marches against giving money away. German efficiency, German pragmatism and German faith in the all-for-one Euro project have been exploited enough. Fiscal union is just another way of saying Germany will pay for pet projects of governments across the Euro.

Thanks to messrs Sergey Brin and Larry Page, I can write that I will offer "Internet-support" for any move from the Germans to not support everyone else. I know it is not worth much, but I just thought I will say this any way.

Ich bin ein Berliner

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Chennai's education system

Never the most vibrant of cities, Chennai still had a lot going for it - Marina beach, Carnatic season, Kollywood. But beyond all these, Chennai also had a sense of identity, a sense of being distinct. One of the underpinnings of this was the city's rich academic culture, and this played a huge role in maintaining that confidence and pride. Chennai has always placed a huge importance on academia and in excellence of any kind, and it is no surprise that benchmark for many 12-15 year olds were the 20-somethings who had a standing because they had done a BE or an MBBS in a good college.

And this is why it is important for the city that the educational institutions stay healthy and competitive. And this is why the City is going down the drain. I am not going to sit on the fence on this one, nor am I going to mince words or be politically correct. Political correctness be damned. If I can shout from a suitable rooftop, I would - The city's educational system is slowly going kaput. It just isn't working. And the funny thing is that most people in the city don't know this.

Good teachers are disappearing, students are clueless, and the general levels of application are abysmally low. Have no illusions, Chennai has fallen so far below the other big cities that we will soon lose sight of them.

The statistical evidence is strong. Chennai has come near the bottom in assessment tests conducted by agencies. In JEE, Chennai did not have a single student in the top 100 apparently, there was a similar poor performance in AIEEE. In AIEEE, a state rank of 3000-odd would have translated to an All India rank of more than 1.5 lakh. CAT, IAS, NLS, we have become poor across the board.

As a former analyst who made his living as a number-cruncher, I retain a healthy scepticism of presented data and am more comfortable with anecdotal evidence that I can trust. As someone currently employed in the education sector, I regularly interact with a lot of teachers. The anecdotal evidence is, if anything, even more depressing.

Teachers across the city are lamenting how student-quality has fallen. A teacher from PSBB told me - You guys worried about clearing JEE. With these kids, I am more worried about them getting decent marks in board exams. Teacher from SBOA: 1997 was the last decent batch that I saw (this in 2010). Even accounting for nostalgia playing a role in rose-tinting the past, it is very clear that standards have fallen dramatically over the past decade or so.

I handle different batches of students. I see three key distressing signs.

1. No clue about fundamentals: I am a bore when it comes to learning from first principles and I can be very pedantic when it comes to very basic things. Even accounting for this, I was shocked when the kids showed zero awareness (plus zero curiosity, which is somehow even more painful to take) of basic concepts. For instance, I have asked several batches of students why d/dx (sin x) was cos x. And not one of them could relate it to anything fundamental. 95% of students in Chennai are taught that d/dx (sin x) is cos x as if d/dx where a black box. They have no idea why this d/dx thing works or what it is supposed to mean logically. To them, it is just something that gives out results that they need to remember. Teaching calculus like this must be the most pointless exercise ever. It is far better to not know anything about calculus

2. Learning fatigue: The ability of students to take in concepts from very basics is p*ss poor. Most good students tire in 20 or so minutes.The average ones have attention spans comparable to 2-year olds. The students can take in formulae (plenty of that), the 'memory' component of their brain is fully functional. Someone has just tampered with the component called "application". Tell students the formula for finding the number of factors for 2^3 * 3^5 * 5^4, they will solve questions all day. After 30 minutes of practice, ask them for number of even factors of the 2^3 * 3^5 * 5^4 and they will stare at you as if you asked them to recite from the Gita. In their defence, if you gave them a formula for counting even factors, they would be happy to practice that as well. But the "application" component of the brain as gone AWOL. This leads to a fetish for shortcuts and more formulae - both distress signals.

3. Lack of ambition: When I was in school (1997) , we guys would want to participate in any contest at an all-India level just to see where we stood vis-a-vis students from Mumbai, Bangalore etc. The number of times I hear "JEE is an All-India exam and so too tough", "We should not look at AIEEE all India rank", "The competition in CAT is mad. We should not have to put up with this" is absurd.

The students positively quake in their boots at the very mention of competition at an All-India level. If this timidity brought with it some humility that would be half a victory. But for some reason, the city has been infested with this slugfest celebrating mediocrity. When the whole world is trying to imitate the competitive setting from India and China, there is our own Chennai that is running away from competition at a rapid clip. The heart bleeds.

Parents have lost the ability to say - "Roll with it. You were born in this country. This intensity will build character. Apply yourself and the fundamentals for a bright future can be built". We are becoming a city of wimps. Parents are mollycoddling their kids endlessly. We guys used to bicycle 7+ kms one way six days a week to attend coaching classes for JEE. Our parents felt bad about this, but not once did they make it sound like a big deal. I think overwhelming majority of parents these days are not willing to tell their kids to push themselves harder. Where are the tiger moms of Chennai?

Somebody had to say we are not that good these days. I am happy to be that guy. I realize that I have used to pretty provocative language. Please don't take offence to that and miss the point. The city is a horror show as far as education is concerned. The earlier we realize this, the better.

Will outline my hypotheses for the reasons for this in the next post. And suggestions for improving things in the subsequent post.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Cricket and India

There seem to be a lot of parallels between Indian cricket, and erm, India.

Till late 80's, both the Indian team and India were largely unheralded/unknown quantities till the late 80's. Then Sam Pitroda-Rajiv Gandhi took some steps in the right direction, broadly the same time at which the Reliance world cup and later SRT happened. Both were the first signs of promise.

Then early 90's, Indian reforms took shape, the ground-work was laid for some breakthrough industries/enterprises that were to come along later. For the team, Kumble came along, Ganguly made an appearance, and Dravid-Laxman started doing their thing in the local circuits. In many ways, the real fruits of the reforms took effect only in the second half of the 90's

Second half of 90's is when we really started hearing about Infosys Wipro, started believing that India could finally compete globally and create high quality institutions. About the time, Ganguly-Dravid appeared. TCS, the old warhorse also joined the mix, ditto SRT (finally now it looked like he might not be the only good guy around). Cognizant/Laxman were the slightly late entrants. 2000-01, India felt the dotcom bust, cricket went through the match-fixing scandal. The Azhar-Satyam parallel is the only one where the timeline does not match :)

Around this time, Pokhran happened and Eden Gardens happened. These expanded the horizons of what-could-be beyond imagination.

Early 2000's,
good results all around. Adelaide, Pakistan tour, 2003 WC, etc. Good growth, good infra build up, general feel good factor. Telecom sector came and took the limelight, enter Harbhajan with a bang in his debut series. It looked like we were setting ourselves up for a higher trajectory. India needed newer biggies, the team needed newer names - Sehwag, Yuvraj, Zaheer came up. Auto sector, telecom sector broke through, realty sector also shined.

Just when things were fine, we were woken up rudely. 2007 WC debacle, 2008-meltdown. But the rebound was way better than expected. It also helped that we were seen now as relatively better. Australia declined, Pakistan, Windies disappeared, NZ finally ran out of steam, England were in transition, and it was up to India to not fluff its lines. On the global economy, US went into a big recession, Europe was struggling and there were few safe havens. India, part of the emerging market brigade acquitted itself wonderfully, or so it seemed.

The new-age, confident group made a mark in the biggest stage with a WC win and on the other hand Indian market rallied to nearly touch a new high.

But, the reality is that both triumphs were built on weak (longer-term/longer-format) fundamentals (even the metaphors start matching :) ). Just like how decoupling was always a myth, the new all-round fitter+better team was also just a myth. Both have been running low on newer inputs. The old-warhorses are still pulling the engine along. The rising tide had just lifted all boats, in both settings. Both need renewal now. Especially, with a giant recession looming, and huge retirements around the corner.

Most importantly, I think for all the improvements seen, we are now left with a feeling that some of the basics aren't much improved - governance, administration, education, fitness (corruption, bowling stocks). Funnily enough, those of us who have been following both for a while have this vague inexplicable feeling that the promising-but-not-there-yet version of the late 90's had more going for it than the premature we-have-arrived-bring-it-on version of the early 2010's. But hey, things go in cycles. And this is still better than the 80's. :)

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Test Cricket - The end is nigh

Michael Holding has recently said in an interview that he fears for the future of test cricket. Many have made this pronouncement in the past, and many have made strong defence against this hypothesis. Few are better than Gideon Haigh at discussing this . On this issue, conventional wisdom has alwaye been that the future of test cricket depended on whether test cricket die-hards would cede space to the newer breed of T-20 fans. The question people had in their minds was always - "Will there be enough die-hards left for tests post the T-20 bonanza?"

I held the belief that if the die-hards turned up, test cricket would be safe. And I always believed that the die-hards would turn up. I have too many friends who wake up at 5:30 in the morning to follow the Ashes in Australia, too many who know Brian Lara's test average, and far too many who will happily be able to recall at least 30 of Sachin's test centuries at 5 minutes notice. India alone would be able to keep test cricket alive - I used to believe. Now, I am beginning to have doubts.

It is not the T-20 that made me waver, it is not even the IPL. These always attracted "newer" audiences. There were too many who had seen the 376 partnership in Kolkatta and therefore could not take Warne's claim that Yusuf Pathan had played the greatest innings ever too seriously. These events increased the share of T-20 audience in cricket. What it did not do was to reduce the audience for test cricket. And there-in lies the rub, I used to think.

Now, post the 4-0 drubbing in England, I am getting worried. I am beginning to hear people saying that "It is alright, one off defeat is fine. We are still the ODI champions". I can happily live with that.

I am also hearing an undertone of "Dhoni is still the best in the world. He took India to the WC. He took India to the No1 ranking in the world. He took CSK to 2 crowns and a Champions League triumph". Now, this I feel is dangerous. The moment Dhoni's legacy gets measured in terms of all of these things, the famed primacy to test cricket argument becomes a sham. And without even the pretext of the primacy to text cricket argument, test cricket could be on its last legs.

Fans' emotional involvement alone can keep a game going for a long time. There are a great many (yours truly included) in India who will watch India test series in even New Zealand and West Indies if it will help keep the game going. We guys are crazy enough to accommodate bad timings, poorly scheduled tours, etc etc. But what we cannot bear to think that is that the guys whom we support so madly, so passionately, do not accord the same importance to the form of cricket that we so adore. Indian cricket took its fans' trust for granted once in the match-fixing scandal and got away with it. Test cricket in India cannot have another trust-beating like that. If Dravid or Tendulkar come out and say what Gayle did, test cricket would not survive long in India. And my fear is that, once these legends bow out, then sooner or later, one of these guys is going to say something similar. The "primacy to test cricket" adage has probably done its time.

The two countries that seem to really place importance on test cricket are England and Australia. And I would say my heartfelt thanks to them. I am not a big fan of either team, and have hated (and still hate) the English cricket team with a passion. I dont carry a chip on my shoulder like Gavaskar, but have been accused in the past of irrationally hating the England team. No matter how much I loathe the team, I can assure them come 2024 if the Ashes are still on, I will be watching them. I will not have the same passion for the game if India starts playing less than 5 tests per year, but I will still watch the Ashes. If the Ashes turn out to be the last reminder for what test cricket used to be, I will do my bit to keep that going. Because, in all likelihood it looks like that will be the only test series in the 2020's where both teams care deeply about the result.

I am hoping like crazy that I am wrong. Much as I would wish Dravid, Sachin and Laxman to be remembered as the greatest middle order ever, there is no joy in them getting this accolade if they were also the last relevant middle order around.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Open magazine and the genius called Akshay Sawai

Akshay Sawai is the writer on the rolls of The Open Magazine who pretends to write on sports. His first few articles were not that painful - just unfunny and mildly irritating. Just sample this -

From an article titled "How to impress your father-in-law"
Inside the circle, things are more intense. Hammocks are prohibited. There is a slip or two, mid-on, mid-wicket, mid-off, cover, point. There is the wicketkeeper, of course, and behind him a helmet that looks like the head of a man buried neck-deep.

Now, seriously - helmet looks like the head of a man buried neck deep. What next, shoes look like the top view of what Bharata (of Ramayana fame) would have carried to Rama when he went to the forest

This one titled " Perks of the job" is even worse. He tries to ridicule Sreesanth very unsuccessfully here

Asking the play­ers even the odd question at the nets is PR sui­cide. When I ask Sreesanth for a comment af­ter he accidentally bowls a beamer at Yuvraj Singh, he raises eyebrows. “I’m still playing the World Cup. You know the rules. Now please don’t write anything,” he says haughtily. I only asked for an answer, not the Louis Vuitton loafers he wears off the field.

Not the Louis Vuitton loafers?, 'answered haughtily'?. Sreesanth is prohibited from talking to journos. As a muppet with a two-digit IQ, AS should know this. He chooses to ignore this, pokes his nose and is politely told off. But still cannot resist a cheap gag at an easy target. In the same piece, he has a poke at Yuvraj Singh as well.

One misses Julian Assange when the Sreesanth-Yuvraj episode happens. How entertaining it would be to employ the investigative chicanery of Assange and find out what exactly Yuvraj said to Sreesanth after being struck by the beamer. But even without Assange around, it is obvious that a full sargam of Punjabi invective has escaped Yuvraj’s mouth. How is this for a new Yuvraj slogan: six sixes in Durban, six gaalis (abusive words) in Bangalore?

One misses Assange? 'Investigative chicanery'?, new absurd slogan - how low can Indian journalism go. Anyone who has played any sport at any level beyond bedroom games with 3-year olds knows that people swear. I played at a level that can be described as "potentially a qualifying level for attempting to be pre-amateur", and I used to swear. A lot. Akshay Sawai goes for another easy target here - Punjabi loudmouth - and comes off wrong. Now, my issue is not that AS goes for these guys. It is that the essays are unfunny. One cannot laugh at these jokes even if one were paid to do so. He probably thinks investigative chicanery is a turn of phrase of which Wodehouse would have been proud of.

Now, even these are mild. What really got me going was this piece on Djokovic. Djokovic was in the middle of a great run when this was published. A writer could have written about Djoker's forehand, Djoker's run which Mcenroe acknowledged was better than his own, Djoker's initial years as a pro, Djoker's imitations of various players, or Djokers life in war-torn Eastern Europe. But our dude starts with this.

Rafael Nadal picks at a certain body part, Jayalalithaa does not. But there is a similarity between the two: beating them on their home turf is hard. If Tamil Nadu is Jayalalithaa’s turf, Nadal’s is clay.

No, seriously. Nadal's posterior and an inaccurate description of Jayalalitha's electoral record are the topics one needs to touch on before getting on with a ( gut-wrenchingly dull) piece on Djoker. The start is absurd, factually inaccurate, absurd and frightfully unfunny. That this has gone past the subs at The Open leads me to think that the writer either knows the editor personally or is sleeping with someone in the subs team. This was the last straw. I thought that post this, someone, somewhere would have written to the Open to tell them about the writer.

Apparently, not. Because this was published this week. Among other things, the article says that Kapil was disappointed that the Indian team won the WC in 2011 as this would take some of the gloss off the 1983 version. The writer is peeved that Kapil Dev gets Rs. 20 lakhs for appearances in TV shows, asked Rs. 3 lakhs per article for writing for the Open.

Darling, you can take your opinion about how much Kapil Dev should demand for a TV show and stick an oar into it. Kapil Dev demands Rs. 20 lakhs because some muppet is willing to pay for it. And because millions are willing to watch it. I think you are not worth Re 1 and The Open should be paying something in the range of 40-42 paise per year. But that does not count. The Open went to Kapil Dev asking him to "contribute" a column, he named a price, you walked away. Now, discussing that deal is cheap. Any muppet in this country can write on cricket. Only one can sign it as Kapil Dev. He named a price for that signature, not the article. You walked away from that deal, good for you. Now, shut up.

Kapil got a lion's share of commercial contracts and deals post 1983, because he was by far the best player that this country had seen till 1992 (when one Mr. SRT started showing some of his stuff). KD was miles ahead of any other player we had ever produced. To date, he is the best all-rounder we have produced and will probably count in the top 10 all-rounders of all time. He won us our first WC and no one is going to take that away from him.

Full of snide comments, unnamed sources (former-great, 1983 winner, industry insider are all descriptions used. These could be my aunt, my great-grandfather and my 2-year old son), and patently unfunny. The article has zero credibility and is written merely to provoke. I am ashamed to say that I could not resist that temptation. I am going to do the bare minimum within my power. Stop the damn subscription.

As I have mentioned here, Open is beginning to resemble a troll. All provocation and no substance. Anyone can write an article that is contrarian and going against the grain. It is important for a magazine to provoke. But provocation cannot be sole aim, and neither can it be done at the cost of honesty and integrity.

I am not sentimental about Kapil Dev. KD be damned, for all I care. But for the love of god, either do it on sound ground, or do it with a lot of wit. This half-cock attempt is just a shame. Jokers.

The Open - Fast turning into a farce

The Open started out as a decent magazine, and with Sandipan Deb and later Manu Joseph as editors, it got positioned as the one 'neutral' magazine on the street. It informed and provoked in equal measure, and was soon way better than the rag that is called 'India today' and the magazine-that-was Outlook.

Then Barkha-gate brought it to the limelight, and in many ways the magazine reveled in this. Even then, the magazine did not come undone. Then Hartosh Singh Bal happened. Smart guy, but usually too smart by half for himself. Magazine increased its 'unconventional' quotient. But in many ways, fell into the trap of being different for the sake of sounding cool. Now, it has become the magazine that writes stuff merely to provoke. There just is not enough substance. If the entire magazine were to be given a virtual nickname, it would have to be 'troll'.

While Manu Joseph wrote provocative (but freakishly well thought-out) pieces on Indian pride and religion (Islam in particular), Hartosh Singh Bal got into a war of words with William Darlymple - Bal and WD's reply. It would have been alright if Bal had stopped it at this. The Open then went on to print a rebuttal of a rebuttal which was completely unnecessary. Pseudo-intellectualism at its worst. As a reader, you were left with the feeling that these morons' sense of self-worth was so screwed that they believe this would interest me. I mean, investment bankers have smaller egos than this. Like Calvin would have said - I deeply resented the editors' assumption that this would amuse me (Calvin is a genius, btw).

This streak in the Open Magazine team to be contrarian is beginning to grate. When the whole country was talking anti-corruption, they ran with a cover story going how the middle-class is hypocritical and how Anna Hazare is a muppet. For the record, Anna Hazare is a figure-head, and most of India knows this. The earlier the Indian media gets this, the better. The magazine also became more pseudo-intellectual. For instance, I cannot even figure out what is being said by Hartosh Singh Bal here .

But all these are pardonable sins. Hartosh Singh Bal is probably like this school bully who has to have the last word and establish his ability to think a lot and think differently. The readers' complete lack of interest in this showcase of Bal's intellectual prowess be damned. There is half a chance that Bal might even be provoked enough to construct a reply to this in his mind rubbishing the credentials of yours truly (that is, in case one of the 4 people who reads this is not more than 3 levels of separation from Mr Bal). But, as I said, these are pardonable sins.

The main reason I am stopping my subscription is the space occupied on the Open Magazine by one Mr. Akshay Sawai. I refuse to fund any institution (in however indirect a way) that facilitates the upkeep of Mr Sawai. Now, I dont know Mr Sawai personally, but what I have read, I can only state that the Guardian's description of one of the football commentators would suit him perfectly. The phrase was - Efforts should be taken to cure Mr. X of his delusions of adequacy (or something to that effect). More on that here.